In the Tall Grass Review: A Weird, Wild, and Underwhelming Adaptation of Stephen King and Joe Hill

Thanks to Pet Sematary, IT CHAPTER TWO, and Doctor Sleep, 2019 could go down as one of the biggest years for Stephen King, as these mark only some of the ways in which the author's stories have been adapted for a live-action project this year. While some audiences are looking to the big screen to see some of the author's most iconic stories unfold, some filmmakers have been setting their sights on lesser-known properties, reminding fans that his works cover a variety of unsettling storytelling realms. With Netflix's In the Tall Grass, a novella which King co-wrote with his son Joe Hill, director Vincenzo Natali delivers a bizarre story, even by King's standards, which is full of a number of interesting ideas that fail to form a compelling or cohesive experience.

As a pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) travels across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to start a new life, the two become sidetracked when they hear a young boy crying out for help in a field of tall grass. When the siblings venture into the field in hopes of helping him, they quickly become disoriented, though separating from one another is only the beginning of the terrifying ordeals they face in the perplexing grass.

The premise of the film is incredibly effective, as anyone who has ever wandered through a corn maze can tell you that the experience of being unable to see your destination through thick foliage, which extends only a few feet above your eye line, is extremely frustrating. While you might be able to somewhat navigate your way through the towering stalks, it only takes a moment to lose your bearings and lead you to question whether you are moving closer to your destination or further from it, with each step potentially bringing you closer to your salvation or a step away from it. With Cube being his debut feature, Natali's abilities at conveying claustrophobia through his direction in relatively confined spaces are unquestionably strong, leaving the audience feeling just as lost as our protagonists.

Before the end of the first act, Becky and Cal realize they aren't the only ones in the field, as Ross (Patrick Wilson) appears to alert them that he, too, was lured into the field and lost sight of his wife and young son. As all of these characters unite, the film descends into predictable territory. Feeling stranded in the middle of the field, some of the characters start losing their sanity in all of the expected ways. They turn on each other, believe there is a greater meaning to their situation, and long-buried secrets are unearthed. These developments aren't necessarily all egregious, but having seen similar scenarios unfold in King projects like The Mist, Under the Dome, and The Langoliers, we wonder why we have to suffer through such a familiar premise once again, especially when the stakes feel much lower than a dome covering an entire town or a fog full of otherworldly creatures.

Once Wilson shows up in the film, it seems as though he's the only one who knows the tone of the hokey B-movie being brought to life. As compared to his more emotionally earnest roles in the Insidious or The Conjuring films, he's hamming it up and loving every minute of it. The rest of the cast, however, is much more subdued, with the characters all feeling like exaggerated stereotypes, yet are denied the opportunity to fully lean into that heightened tone.

As the narrative tensions escalate, the story's mythology gets more complex, ambitious, and unwieldy. Natali's script embraces Lovecraftian cosmic terrors, which all become muddled in the generic cat-and-mouse games of the second act. The film features time travel, reincarnation, mystical beings, and many more ambitious plot points. Natali's depiction of these plot points are just as bizarre as the reveals themselves, making for an incoherent spectacle.

Audiences are left so disoriented by the time the third act rolls around that it's hard to appreciate the ways that Natali tries to pull everything back together. Some semblance of a bizarre narrative becomes clear, falling in line with bizarre nature of Natali's previous films, though he can't find a way to stick the landing. A number of promising concepts were thrown at the wall and, while none of them stuck, that didn't stop him from making it into the film.

In the Tall Grass has multiple effective and thrilling sequences, though its messy narrative prevents those from being fully explored, frustrating the audiences with the promising plots we were denied. In that sense, it's like the viewers themselves are immersed in the tall grass of ambitious ideas, but struggle to see where we're going and drift further away from an exciting destination with each passing moment.


Rating: 2 out of 5

In the Tall Grass premieres on Netflix on October 4th.